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Rod Beard and Josh Katzenstein preview the Lions' game against the Patriots.

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Allen Park — Lions strong safety James Ihedigbo wouldn't say 2014 has been his best season in the NFL, but it wouldn't be much of a stretch.

Since missing the first three games with a nerve injury in his neck, the bargain free-agent signing has been an impact player for the Lions' No. 1-ranked defense week after week. In seven games, he has 41 tackles, five for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, four passes defensed and an interception.

"I played pretty good the last couple years at Baltimore, but I'd say this year with the Lions is up there in terms of me playing at a high level and rightfully so," he said. "Like I said and I've said before, the standard that we have here in this secondary and in this defense forces you to play at a high level, or you'll stick out like a sore thumb."

Ihedigbo credits part of his strong play to his improved coverage skills, something he's focused on during practice this season. Few players show improvement at age 30, but Ihedigbo has taken a winding path around the NFL. And on Sunday, he'll play against the New England Patriots, his hometown team and the first to give him a chance at starting after he spent four years with the New York Jets.

Ihedigbo grew up in Amherst, Mass. and went to UMass, but said most of his immediate family has moved away, making it easier to approach Sunday's game as a business trip. He also grew up cheering for the Green Bay Packers, not the Patriots, because of Brett Favre and Reggie White — though he knows Lions fans won't like that.

In his season with the Patriots, Ihedigbo started 12 regular-season games in 2011 and all three postseason games, including the Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.

"James was a good player for us, he was a good player for Baltimore and he's a good player for Detroit," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on a teleconference Wednesday. "He's a very smart, instinctive player that is good in the passing game, reads the quarterback and the route combinations well and is a physical player in the running game."

But the Patriots cut Ihedigbo before the 2012 season, which led him to sign with the Ravens.

"I'm not bitter about it at all," he said. "It was good times there. I'm worried about my time here. I'm worried about our game Sunday. I'm worried about putting our team in position to accomplish our goals this season. I'm not worrying about the past."

Even though Ihedigbo's time wasn't long in New England, he is appreciative of the Patriots for giving him an opportunity and said he learned a lot from Belichick.

"Quietly he is like a genius when it comes to football and just his IQ," Ihedigbo said. "He sees things and understands what teams try to do almost as good as them."

Ihedigbo played primarily special teams with the Ravens in 2012, starting just three games on defense, but he won a Super Bowl that season. He started all 16 games for the Ravens in 2013, but with Baltimore showing limited interest after the season, Ihedigbo signed a two-year, $3.15 million contract with the Lions, a bargain considering his ample production.

Now, with Ihedigbo playing the run-stopping role and Glover Quin playing his more natural coverage spot at free safety, the Lions have one of the top safety tandems in the NFL.

Ihedigbo's knowledge of first-year Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's scheme has helped with his transition. He spent two years with Austin in Baltimore. Lions coach Jim Caldwell was with the Ravens the last two years, too, so what Ihedigbo has done this year is no surprise.

"When we had an opportunity to work with him in Baltimore, he brought the same intangibles, and he's the same guy today," Caldwell said. "All of the things that you love about him he continues to do, and he's a warrior. He's one of those guys that you love to have him on your side."

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein

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